A plan to hike tolls on both the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike to help fund a $24 billion highway expansion and maintenance campaign received vocal support from organized labor and the construction industry during public hearings held Wednesday.
But others who did not attend the hearings — which were held despite an ongoing state of emergency ordered statewide amid the coronavirus outbreak — raised several concerns about a plan to raise tolls across all vehicle classes by 36% for the turnpike and 27% for the parkway.
Critics, including a prospective Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2021, questioned holding the hearings during the health care emergency.
They also suggested attendance among the general public was likely depressed by statements Gov. Phil Murphy has been making about residents needing to stay home as much as possible during the outbreak. President Donald Trump has also asked that any gatherings be no larger than 10 people at a time.
In all, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) toll-hike proposal calls for as much as $24 billion in spending over 15 to 20 years, dwarfing the $7 billion capital program that the agency has been working under for roughly the past decade.
The agency, which operates both toll roads, last raised tolls about a decade ago.
The funding, raised by what the agency is calling “toll adjustments,” would be used to underwrite a range of major projects, according to a 45-page summary of the capital program the agency posted online. A series of parkway widening projects will cost more than $5 billion, and a series of turnpike widening projects will run another $6 billion. The capital plan also calls for a $2.86-billion bridge-replacement initiative spanning both highways, and $900 million to ensure all toll plazas on both roads can accommodate electronic tolling or pay-by-mail.
Wednesday’s two public hearings, held in Woodbridge in Middlesex County and Sicklerville in Camden County, were scheduled as a required precursor to the toll hikes being enacted. If the NJTA board eventually approves it, the toll for the average trip on the turnpike would rise from $3.50 to $4.80, and the average toll for parkway motorists would go from $1.11 up to $1.41. In addition, the NJTA is seeking to implement an indexing policy that would allow tolls to be raised by up to 3% annually, starting in 2022.
While questions were raised leading up to the hearings about whether it was a good idea to still take public comment on the new finance proposals amid the state of emergency Murphy ordered earlier this month, officials on Wednesday highlighted special accommodations that were made, including livestreams of both hearings that were made available on the turnpike authority’s website.
The NJTA is also accepting comments online via email at NJTAPublicComments@njta.com.
Investing in economy, infrastructure
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said during remarks at both hearings that the NJTA’s capital investment proposal would help maintain New Jersey’s competitive edge in the regional and global commercial marketplace. She also pitched the roadwork funded by the toll hikes as a potential fiscal stimulus during a time of major economic uncertainty, with the potential for creating thousands of jobs.
“The transportation network must continue to be strengthened, whether in good times or in tough times,” she said.
When the hearing in Woodbridge shifted to public comments, Gerald Keenan, executive vice president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, a coalition of labor and business groups that advocates for infrastructure investment, praised the NJTA officials as visionaries for drafting such an ambitious plan.
“This is really a day that will go down in history,” Keenan said.
Roadwork is ‘critical’
Joseph A. Fiordaliso, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of New Jersey, also backed the NJTA’s plans while saying he wished the timing of the hearing would have been different.
“It is critical that this proposal be enacted,” Fiordaliso said.
During the hearing in Camden, John Robinson of the Carpenters Local 255 labor union was among several labor organization officials who urged adoption of the NJTA plan.
“We stand in support of this as it will create good jobs for our members and make our roads safer,” he said.
James Mellett, an engineer with Berlin-based Churchill Consulting Engineers, also praised the agency and its new capital plan.
“This is something that is going to carry the state through a hard time,” Mellett said.
‘Irresponsible and undemocratic’
But even as the NJTA proposals drew accolades from those who attended the hearings, not everyone was pleased to see the agency moving forward on Wednesday.
Former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli — a Republican who has already declared himself as a 2021 gubernatorial candidate — took to social media to criticize Murphy after the governor told reporters on Tuesday that he had no problem with the public hearings being held as long as they were streamed online and the NJTA collected online comments. Murphy, as governor, has the power to cancel the toll hikes or scale them back, and Ciattarelli said all residents have a right to provide input publicly.
“Around the state, government meetings are being postponed and businesses are being forced to close down, yet Gov. Murphy approves of toll hearings taking place this week? Conducting these hearings in the midst of an international life-and-death pandemic is outrageous and wrong,” Ciattarelli said.
Jeff Tittel, New Jersey director of the Sierra Club, said in a phone interview that his group’s members would have attended the hearings if weren’t for rules preventing them from participating in such gatherings amid a still-spreading pandemic.
Going forward with the hearings, even with online accommodations, was “irresponsible and undemocratic,” Tittel said.
Regina Egea, president of Garden State Initiative, a right-leaning think tank based in Morristown, was also reached by phone. She questioned why the finance plan was being advanced at this time when financial projections are likely going to need to be revised in the wake of the coronvirus outbreak, which some are suggesting will cause a recession.
“I’m sure the turnpike (authority) is going to need a capital plan,” Egea said. “It’s just the thoughtlessness in the short term of not taking a step back to reconsider.”
Several people also connected with NJ Spotlight via Twitter on Wednesday to weigh in on the toll-hike proposal, including Brad Van Arnum of West Windsor.
“Glancing at the numbers . . . it does seem like the Turnpike toll increase is perhaps more than it should be, but the Parkway increase seems pretty reasonable,” Van Arnum said.
“Raising money for capital projects is essential, and even with the new uncertainty of the coronavirus, I would rather see the Turnpike Authority have the money it needs long-term,” he said. “So, count me as a supporter, though a lower Turnpike hike, or at least a slower phase-in, would be better.”
Submit comments through April 3
The NJTA’s deadline for submitting comments on the proposed toll hikes and capital program has been extended to 5 p.m., April 3.
In addition to emailed comments, the agency is accepting written comments by mail, courier or hand delivery, addressed to: Executive Director, New Jersey Turnpike Authority, 1 Turnpike Plaza, P.O. Box 5042, Woodbridge, NJ 07095.
NJTA spokesman Tom Feeney said the agency had received about 900 emailed comments as of 1 p.m. Wednesday. He also said the earliest the NJTA board could approve of the toll hikes would be April 28. According to NJTA rules, a public hearing must be held at least 45 days before any toll hikes can be levied.